The 'B' list guy in a crowd full of 'A's
CTV News talks to Bruce Campbell, the B-movie legend who's leading the list at the festival's Midnight Madness programme
By ALYSSA SCHWARTZ, CTV News Staff
September 10, 2002
This Toronto International Film Festival is crammed with 'A' list stars -- everyone from Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer to Denzel Washington and Sean Penn. So, what's a self proclaimed B-movie legend like Bruce Campbell doing in town? Why, playing Elvis, of course.
Bubba Ho-Tep, a low budget indie flick that screened as part of the festival's Midnight Madness programme, finds Elvis alive and well and, at the age of 68, living in a Texas retirement home. It turns out that, at some point during the height of his success, he decided to give it all up and switch places with an Elvis impersonator. While his replacement meets a sad end on a toilet seat (or spends years on an America-wide tour of 7-11s, depending who you ask), the real Elvis winds up at Mud Creek Shady Rest Convalescence Home. No one believes he's the real rock 'n' roll legend, but then no one believes his sidekick is really John F. Kennedy either.
It's no coincidence that an actor who's been embraced by fans as king of the kitschy movies is playing the ultimate kitsch figure. "This is a cult filmgoer's wet dream," Campbell told CTV.ca.
"I mean, 25 years (after his death), people are still freaking out about Elvis. I think there was just something about him that was cool. He's a cult figure, especially now that he's dead -- so Bubba Ho-Tep is really a cult movie, directed by a cult movie director, Don Coscarelli, with a cult movie actor, Bruce Campbell, written … by a cult writer, Joe Lansdale."
But it ain't easy being a cult hero in an 'A' list crowd, Campbell says.
"Normally I don't like festivals unless I have a reason to be there."
The actor, who's made dozens of film and television appearances, both in so-called B-movies and in major Hollywood blockbusters, recently penned the memoir If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-movie Actor. He says he's reluctant to play all those stereotypical Hollywood games.
As far as he's concerned, showbiz is filled with two types of people -- actors and celebrities. He says the two are "two different worlds."
"There's the actor world, where you read a script and make the decision strictly based on whether the character's good or the story's good -- whatever appeals to you. If you want to be a movie star, then you would make a decision based on a completely different set of criteria."
"It's two different skills. There are a lot of good actors who don't know how to promote themselves there are a lot of crappy actors who really know how to promote themselves," Campbell says.
Campbell says he tries to choose his roles as an actor. Weighing in those various factors has led him to movies like Bubba Ho-Tep, but also to major blockbusters which include the recent box office smash Spider-Man. Still, he says those low-budget, indie productions are "where the fun is."
"You have more input, I think, on the low budget end of things. Things are not as set in stone, people aren't as set in their ways. The experience is not there sometimes, which is the downside, with various crew people or directors or writers or other actors that you're with, but it's very good because you have more flexibility."
Campbell says that maneuvering room is often absent from big-budget productions.
"I had a small part on the movie Congo," he says, referring to the 1995 sci-fi action-adventure flick.
"There wasn't any input from anybody about anything," Campbell says of the filming. "You just show up, say your lines and get out of there ... It wasn't a big discussion -- how about this, how about that? I couldn't even find the director - he was back behind his bank of monitors. It was a very detached situation and I don't think that's very exciting."
But Campbell says even though he often prefers roles in schlocky so-bad-they're-good movies, he's still pretty choosy when it comes to scripts.
"I've turned my nose up at dozens of roles because I thought they were either boring, or poorly written, or the director had no experience, or it just seemed like it was a disaster waiting to happen."
After 25 years in the biz, which include a number of television and film director and producer credits, Campbell credits himself with being able to recognize a stinker from the get-go.
"I have the basic equation in my head -- I can take the amount of script pages versus the amount of days they have to shoot and it'll give me an idea of how many pages per day they have to shoot."
"As a TV director, I know that if you're shooting more than five pages per day on a feature, it sucks. It's not going to work."
Bubba Ho-Tep took six weeks to shoot, almost twice as long as the average super-low budget feature, Campbell says. It allowed time for things like training with an Elvis impersonator and spending up to three hours a day getting into makeup and costume.
"You know, you get the fat suit on, I had full wig, full sideburns, because … I think if we changed the hair too much it wouldn't be Elvis. So we had a grey wig made up so there was this big shank of hair. It was all just a long, horrible process."
But it was that long, horrible process that ultimately made Bubba Ho-Tep an ideal feature for Midnight Madness, the roster of the festival's shlockiest and most subversive flicks.
It's that particular programme which prompts Campbell to chalk up the Toronto fest as "pretty impressive."
"It's one of the few showcases for low budget independent movies. I'm all for any film festival that allows viewers to see different stuff, because if they can show up and see that, hopefully they'll start to support that kind of thing."